Don't buy into the paranoia about PageRank sculpting

PageRank sculpting--a powerful and advanced SEO tactic or a dangerous black hat spam tactic that detracts from site usability?

Stephan Spencer
Search engine optimization expert Stephan Spencer shares late-breaking SEO tools, tips, trends, resources, news and insights. Stephan is the founder and president of Netconcepts, a web agency specializing in search engine optimized ecommerce. Clients include Discovery Channel, AOL, Home Shopping Network, Verizon SuperPages.com, and REI, to name a few. Stephan is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences around the globe. He is also a Senior Contributor to MarketingProfs.com, a monthly columnist for Practical Ecommerce, and he's been a contributor to DM News, Multichannel Merchant, Catalog Success, Catalog Age, and others.
Stephan Spencer
3 min read

The blogosphere and Twitter have been abuzz with talk about this article by Shari Thurow, published Thursday on Search Engine Land. The article warns of supposed dangers against the SEO tactic of "PageRank sculpting." Readers are coming away feeling reticent to employ the tactic, fearing retribution from the engines in the form of penalties. The article paints PageRank sculpting as poor usability and black hat. I can't be any more adamant about this: neither is the case.

No disrespect intended to the article's author, but this article is classic FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). "Nobody ever lost their job by choosing IBM," the classic FUD saying goes. "Nobody ever lost their ranking by refusing to implement PageRank sculpting" is the FUD peddled in this article.

PageRank sculpting is a powerful tactic that is worthy of inclusion in any advanced SEO practitioner's toolkit. I have written and blogged and spoken in favor of the tactic. I stand by the tactic, as do many other top-notch SEOs, and most importantly, so does Matt Cutts.

Matt Cutts, the head of Google's Webspam team, has publicly condoned the use of PageRank sculpting on repeated occasions. For example, in this SEOMoz interview:

Does Google recommend the use of nofollow internally as a positive method for controlling the flow of internal link love?

A) Yes--Webmasters can feel free to use nofollow internally to help tell Googlebot which pages they want to receive link juice from other pages

(Matt's precise words were: The nofollow attribute is just a mechanism that gives Webmasters the ability to modify PageRank flow at link-level granularity. Plenty of other mechanisms would also work (e.g., a link through a page that is robot.txt'ed out), but nofollow on individual links is simpler for some folks to use. There's no stigma to using nofollow, even on your own internal links; for Google, nofollow'ed links are dropped out of our link graph; we don't even use such links for discovery. By the way, the nofollow meta tag does that same thing, but at a page level.)

Google has even used the technique on its own properties.

So my question to Ms. Thurow is: "Have you ever conducted any testing of the PageRank sculpting technique?" We at Netconcepts have, and it works.

According to our tests, there are plenty of occasions where it can be a valuable tool, if used wisely. For example, if you have an e-commerce site and the category pages contain three links to every single product page--the product name as a text link, the product image thumbnail as an image link, and the words "View Product" as a text link--you could nofollow the image and "View Product" links and funnel more PageRank through the much more contextually relevant product name-based text links.

If SEO is going to be respected as an experimental science instead of black magic, it needs to be implemented with an experimental approach and all tactics tested for effectiveness (within the bounds of what is acceptable according to the engines). With SEO, you don't just "set it and forget" using the purported "best practices" as defined by the SEO bloggers and speakers (and sure, feel free to include me in that set).

So if Ms. Thurow wrote this piece without any testing, it's just unsubstantiated opinion--and I wholeheartedly disagree with it. :)

And I'm not the only one either. Just take a look at the other prominent SEOs who have countered via blog posts (like "Why There's Nothing Wrong With Sculpting Your Pagerank" and Sphinn comments and desphinns (click on the "Who Desphunn This" tab to see the "desphinns").